Language and Diplomacy (aka The Importance of Knowing Urdu)

The Iranian captain took a risk and used Urdu and the navy “just happened” to have an Urdu speaker on board – this is the story at the heart of the rescue of thirteen Iranian fisherman who were captured by Somali Pirates.

And what a story it is! Iran is a country that is understood primarily through its infamous leader and is not a favorite of the United States. Westerners rarely think of the amazing heritage that comes out of Iran – the history, the beauty of carpets, the delight of the cuisine, and something that must be mentioned – the stunning beauty of Iranian women. I once said to one of my Iranian friends: “When God created women, first he made Iranian women, and after that he didn’t have much beauty left over for the rest of us”. All this is mostly unknown to the western world who view Iran through the lens of a misunderstood veil and Ayatollah’s that make news through sometimes outrageous comments.

The tension between the two countries sparks and sizzles, occasionally bursting into a full flame. This story is an unlikely story of diplomacy on the high seas and of the importance of language and diplomacy. It was on Thursday that the US Naval ship heard a distress call from the Iranian vessel. The fisherman had been captured for six weeks, complying and biding their time, praying and hoping for rescue. The Iranian captain used Urdu, a language that the pirates did not understand, to communicate the need for help to the naval ship. A linguist aboard the ship who understood Urdu was able to translate the message and the result was a rescue of the fisherman and capture of  fifteen pirates.

To give context to how amazing this is, it might help to hear a well-known joke among expatriates:

What is a person who knows two languages called? Bilingual

What is a person who knows three languages called? Trilingual

What is a person who knows one language called? An American

It’s sad but true. Americans are not known for linguistic skill. Our geographic isolation on the world map puts us in a place where learning a second language is not a high priority. To my knowledge, there is no federal law that requires schools to offer a foreign language. It is left up to individual states to decide if and when a foreign language will be offered. Often when a language is available it is not until seventh or eighth grade and at that point a child is about 13 or 14 years old. The chances of them picking up anything more than a ‘please’ or ‘thank you’ during a 45 minute school period is minimal. It is quite tragic. But this story is not a story of tragedy but a story of linguistic skill responding in a potentially fatal situation and changing the outcome dramatically.

When we speak the language of another, we speak to their heart. “You know our language?” they may say with delight, thoroughly surprised that someone from America is familiar with Hindi, or Urdu, or Arabic or Farsi. While there are a myriad of ways to communicate beyond verbal communication, there is something about language and voice that connects us.

In my work I see error and tragedy averted continuously through good interpreters who skillfully navigate between doctor and patient and nurse and patient, helping to prevent miscommunication and increase understanding. It is a different kind of diplomacy and while it doesn’t hit the news, it is as tremendous as the rescue of the thirteen Iranian fisherman.

The end of the story put a smile on my face. Iran “welcomed the rescue of 13 Iranian sailors by a U.S. Navy ship, calling it a ‘humanitarian act.'”(CNN)  The picture I have in my mind of American navy men waving at Iranian fisherman headed home, smiling, wearing USS Kidd Navy ball caps?  Now that’s a picture of diplomacy.

Bloggers Note: The author wishes to confess that she speaks Urdu and Arabic enthusiastically but poorly and would never have been able to rescue the fisherman. She could however let the pirates know in fluent Urdu that they were completely uncivilized!

Waking up to the Smell of Freedom

I woke up this morning to the strong smell of coffee freedom. Freedom was all around me. A light rain fell outside but inside was dry, light and safe. As I stretched in bed with my eyes becoming accustomed to being open and my body slowly waking up, I realized the day was ahead of me and full of possibilities. I could choose to go back to sleep, or get up and write. I could choose to drink coffee or tea, black or with cream. I could choose English muffins, or cereal; eggs or not. I smelled freedom in all my activities and in all my choices from big to small.

Across oceans and country borders in the country of Iran is a man who is facing execution for his faith. Based on a ruling from the Iranian Supreme Court, Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani, a Christian, is accused of apostasy. He was given three opportunities to renounce his faith and would not do so, because for him “to live is Christ, and to die is gain”. Even as there is no freedom for him to express a faith in anything other than the state mandated religious system, he has chosen his faith above all. He wakes up to a smell of filth in a jail cell, not to the smell of freedom, yet he knows, far better than I, that true freedom comes in knowing God.

There is international pressure to release Pastor Nadarkhani. Outspoken condemnation of the Iranian government is being voiced by various governments and groups around the globe with the hope that the ruling will be changed. But even then, changed to what? To release and full freedom or to lifelong imprisonment that includes torture and mistreatment. So even as I experience my freedom today, my heart longs for this universal right to be extended to all people, my heart aches to see the release of Pastor Nadarkhani.

As I drink my coffee along with tasting my freedom, I choose to be aware and to pray for this man, his family, his children and his country.

Guest Post: Free the Hikers – The Brother Behind the Scenes

Today’s post is written by Cliff Gardner. If you have followed news on the hikers in Iran, or are just tuning in, take a look.

I remember the first time I read the news about three American hikers who were imprisoned in Iran for crossing into Iranian territory and accused of being spies. To be honest, my first thought was, “How could you ‘accidentally’ be hiking so close to an international border?” especially that of an international pariah like the Islamic Republic of Iran. I followed the news on and off as the conflicting details of their detainment was reported in various news sources.

It wasn’t until December 2010 that I would become more closely connected to these “hikers”. I was hosting an event at Harvard with our guest lecturer, Ambassador Akbar Ahmed, Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at AmericanUniversityin Washington, DC. After his lecture I was introduced to Alex Fattal, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Anthropology at Harvard. He was introduced to me by Amb. Ahmed as the “brother of one of the “hikers” detained in Iran”. I was fascinated to learn over dinner that night some of the details behind the media stories that I had heard. Alex shared with us about his brother Josh’s story with such passion, empathy and desperation. I found out that Amb. Ahmed had been instrumental in helping the three families work diplomatic, educational and humanitarian channels of communication to try to obtain the release of Josh, Shane and Sarah. You can read more about their story at their website:

I met with Alex later that week over coffee in theHarvard Law School café and was fascinated to hear about all the efforts made on behalf of the three “hikers”. Alex had put his PhD studies on hold to focus fulltime in the effort to obtain the release of his brother and Shane. Sarah had been released in August 2010, and they were all hopeful that Shane and Josh would be released soon as well. I told Alex that I would pray for his release and spread the word among my family, friends and colleagues about their plight. Alex has tirelessly travelled all over the world to speak to government officials, journalists and humanitarian groups to share about their release. I would be in touch with him periodically on Facebook or email to see how he was doing. He’d be at a fundraiser in San Francisco one weekend, in New York for a benefit concert a few days later, and then be interviewed on some news channel the next week.

On August 20, 2011 I heard the news that Josh and Shane were charged in an Iranian court of illegal entry and espionage and sentenced to 8 years in prison. I felt sick to my stomach and yet, prayed even harder for their release.

We woke up yesterday to the amazing news that the President of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, had announced on NBC that Josh and Shane would be released in the coming week, prior to his visit the United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York. News of this spread like wildfire on the internet and by word of mouth.

As I have followed Alex and the roller-coaster ride of emotion he and his family have ridden since July 2009 I am overwhelmed by the love that he has for his brother. His dogged determination has shown me that one should never give up, even when facing the most Goliath-like of challenges. Alex vs. The Islamic Republic of Iran?

Having four brothers myself I wonder if I would exhibit the same kind of passion and determination he has shown these past two years? We anxiously await the reunion of two brothers on a tarmac embracing each other after such a long and desperate separation.

“A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for a time of adversity.” – Proverbs 17:17

Bloggers Note: Cliff is the Administrative Officer for the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Islamic Studies Program at Harvard University. He is also the love of my life.

Nowruz: Tradition and the Cultural Divide

Haftsin table of Nowruz, Iranian tradition of ...
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Happy Nowruz one day late! This long and beloved Persian festival would have escaped my attention had it not been for an opinion piece that my brother sent me from the New York Times. The holiday, observed after a long winter and coinciding with spring equinox, celebrates the Iranian New Year along with spring and life. Iranians world-wide hold to the same traditions with visiting the elderly, special foods and the famous “Haft Sin” table of Seven. (sprouts (sabzeh),garlic (sir), apples (sib), pudding or custard made of wheat (samanu), dried oleaster (senjed), vinegar (serkeh) and sumac berries(sumac). These seven items, symbolic of seven creations,  is a beautiful and elaborate traditional table display for the holiday.

The article my brother sent me was a poignant look at an immigrant family from Iran as told by the daughter. The daughter speaks of coming to the United States from Iran in the early eighties, her parents awkward and misplaced with only occasional phone calls and the blessed, yearly Nowruz to keep them grounded and connected to the country and culture they so deeply loved. She, on the other hand, was in love with the world of “strawberries and wienershnitzel” that Los Angeles of the eighties offered her and therein is a unique description of the all too familiar cultural divide that occurs between and among families in the immigration process.

The elder members of the family, homesick for the old and dissatisfied with the new, are desperate to keep faith and culture alive in a country where they see threats to both. The young fully present in their current reality, soaking in all that is new, easily dismiss all that is from their past as old and irrelevant whether it be eating habits, dress, or faith traditions. In the words of the author of the opinion piece they realize these traditions are safest kept to the house”. Parents in their hurt and confusion often drive their children farther away through guilt-inducing statements and passive aggressive behavior.  The kids respond in kind, moving farther away, whether emotionally or geographically, and try and dismiss the feelings that occasionally rise to the surface that symbolize their deep need for belonging and their perhaps ineffective ways of trying to achieve this in the “new country”.

The infamous “they” say that time heals all wounds. Perhaps time also heals those cultural divides. Certainly in this case the author comes around to a place of seeing Nowruz “more about a call of the new… than the pull of the old” finding recipes and driving long distances for a “real” Persian meal as she comes to a greater understanding and appreciation for the event in her life.

Children are rarely aware of the significance and/or severity of events that bring their parents to a point of “no return” to the country they have left. To be sure they are aware of upheaval, loss, and change but the big events are not understandable. I believe it is those just below the surface of their conscious feelings of loss and disconnection that make them unable to connect old with new, forcing them into a choice between curry and hotdogs, or Nowruz and the 4th of July,  until they are adults and can work through these feelings and know it’s okay to live between worlds and appreciate both. Where they can come to a point of understanding and embracing both events without feeling disloyal or dishonest, but instead richer and more complex adding to their one-of-a-kind cultural heritage.

So to all those immigrants and hidden immigrants – Happy Nowruz or Sham el Nessim or Spring Equinox. You have a past and a history no one can take away from you. Embrace it and use it to build bridges on both sides of the globe.

“With barely any cognizance of the revolution that brought us here 30 years ago, I was ready to be a card-carrying member of this world of hot dogs and strawberries; but by the time I got that card — citizenship, 20 years later — I found that I had joined my parents in the clumsy yet hopeful adulthood of immigrants. And in this moment of upheaval and transformation, in yet another season of renewal and rebirth, I finally understand that existing in the temporary and embracing impermanence might not be a dishonest way to accept life.” Porochista KhakpourNYTimes Op-ed piece, printed March 20,2011

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